Costly blindspot... FLOSS and ICT4D
In a vast country the size of India, the left hand doesn't quite know what the right hand is doing in the ICT4D fi. Also, very little of India's vast Free Software potential has actually been channelised into this field. Musings from Baramati... home to a recent, ambitious e-agriculture conference.
In the second week of March it was Baramati. This dusty, small town is located near Pune in Central India, where political strongman (currently this country's agriculture minister) Sharad Pawar is attempting to turn this once-barren landscape into an educational, knowledge and IT Mecca of sorts.
For the sixth year, this summer saw the hosting of Baramatiinitiatives.org -- an 'information and communication technology for development' event that focuses on how ICTs can help the commonman. And, importantly, the commonwoman too.
In 2006, the focus was on agriculture. Some interesting stories came up from the two-day conference. And, the choice of the term 'stories' here does not imply they're fictional!
Once Utah-based IIT Bombay professor Krithi Ramamritham has this impressive aaqua.org site. Its name stands for "almost all questions answered", and it offers solutions to the simple farmers who want specific info about agriculture and more.
Others, like the www.esagu.in project, are sending back digital photos of farmers to the scientists. There's no waiting here for the mountain to visit Mohammed, and get timely advice on what to do for their imperilled crops, under the e-sagu (which means e-cultivation in Telugu) project in Andhra Pradesh.
Vijay Pratap and my old-time friend Tapan S. Parikh, who's committed to GNU/Linux-based Indic language solutions, have been doing a great job and one remembered them when Rohit Magotra made a presentation on behalf of ekgaon technologies (www.ekgaon.com)
Other initiatives include the Gramdoot Seva Kendra of Wardha the Baramati-based VIIT itself (see viitindia.org or better, ict4rd.org). Even the government-run National Informatics Centre has some interesting deployment of ICT, including in specialist websites, though that organisation seems to be excessively focussed on proprietorial software.
Other projects look at interactive voice telephony solutions, SMSs that bring you the latest crop prices, and more. One could hear the 'G' or the 'L' word come up, once in a way.
Project proponents spoke of GNU and 'Linux' technologies they're deploying. Redhat is the backbone of the graminvyapar.com e-selling and e-procurement network. It also propels the management information system for sugar factories around Pune. aAqua.org is based on vnForum from Vietnam! Check out this geeky URL -- http://126.96.36.199 -- to know
what Jitendra Shah and team are doing in taking FLOSS-based GIS to the villages. There was also talk of Plone.
But as this decade gets excited about the potential of Free Software in working out affordable solutions, the yawning gaps between three critical sectors becomes all the more obvious.
There are techies, there are grassroot organisations (or non-profits and NGOs), and there are those investing money into such ventures (international 'development' organisations, or governments). But there are few linkages among these different players.
Very little of India's vast Free Software potential has actually been channelised into this field.
Two factors are very clear. One is that in a vast country the size of India, the left hand doesn't quite know what the right hand is doing. This means that some good projects are not widely known; and there is hardly any comprehensive listing of useful project that could inspire more to come up.
Besides, the grassroot workers and those with sources of support don't know where the techies are, or how best to reach them. They seem almost wholly unaware in understanding how the Free Software model of producing, using, sharing and improving software works. On the other hand, the techies seem blissfully ignorant about the needs of the grassroots. Or, where they can play a role.
With so much latent talent lurking in the background, this is almost criminal. With so much of a need for sharable software that can enhance efficiency and make for more humane lives on
so many fronts -- specially in our fields and slums -- this is surely unforgivable.
Who will take the message forward and share it with others? Let each one of us contribute our bit. There's a whole new world out there, waiting to happen. But if we don't reach out to it, optimism could go waste instead of becoming a badly-needed self-fulfilling prophecy.